Game 34 Preview: Houston Rockets vs. Portland Trail Blazers

Game Time:  6:00 p.m.  TV:  CSNNW

The Houston Rockets mirror the Blazers in more ways than just their near-.500 records (Houston 16-16, Portland 17-16).  Once on the rise in the conference,  their hopes were dashed by a chronically-injured center and the health of a superstar scoring wing (in their case, now departed).  They're now drifting aimlessly with a hodge-podge of talent decent enough to win but not good enough to excel.  They have a nice power forward and a 20-point scorer at off-guard.  Their starting small forward is good defender and nice complementary piece but not able to produce enough consistent scoring.  Of course Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, and Shane Battier are all different players than Greg Oden, Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and Nicolas Batum, but the overall song sounds disturbingly similar no matter which instruments it's played on.

One place in which the two teams diverge sharply is point guard.  Kyle Lowry has not yet lost the starting position to the returning Aaron Brooks.  That's partially because Lowry has been playing steady, though not spectacular, ball.  His shooting percentages are decent, his assist total good.  He's turning over the ball a bit but part of that is attributable to offensive continuity rather than his own flaws.  Brooks, meanwhile, has been struggling like a mug-mug from the field.  He's shooting 38% overall, shy of 33% from distance.  His assist total is impressive given his lack of minutes, but he's not been anywhere near the scoring threat the Blazers saw in the playoffs a couple years past, nor does he look like the crown prince of the franchise anymore.  Contrast this with the polished play of Portland's Andre Miller lately (plus his utter lack of back-up) and Portland probably has an advantage at this position.

Back to the mirror, however, Houston center Chuck Hayes will be sidelined for at least two weeks with an ankle injury, leaving them depleted in the middle.  Young 6'10" forward Jordan Hill is trying to take up the slack, backed up by the ancient and perimeter-oriented Brad Miller.

Given all the turnover and jury-rigging it's unsurprising that this Rockets team bears no resemblance to their predecessors.  Mostly notably the once-imposing defense is all but absent.  Houston is bottom-third in the league in fastbreak points, points in the paint allowed, and defensive efficiency.  They're barely better than that in field goal percentage allowed, worse in three-point percentage allowed.  Their defensive rebounding is also terminally mundane.

On the other hand they've brewed an offensive explosion this season, ranking fourth in the league in points per game.  They played 15 games in December and topped 110 in 8 of them.  They score on the break and in the paint themselves.  They're also good from three-point land.  They draw a ton of foul shots and hit them too.   All of this makes up for a so-so overall shooting percentage.  If you stall them they tend to wilt, but if they get on a roll they can bowl you out of the building. 

Overall the generally-poor defense and generally great offense have evened out to that .500 record we spoke of.  They've also won 8 of their last 10.   In a way that's spit polish on Goodwill china, though.  The Rockets have two quality wins all season, defeating the Lakers and the Thunder.  They often manage to keep it close against good teams but they ultimately lose.  Their 8 recent wins consisted of Detroit, Cleveland, Sacramento, Memphis, Sacramento (again), Golden State, the Clippers, Washington, and Toronto...not exactly murderer's row.  More like pat your cheek with a very soft marshmallow row.

Therein lies the key for the Blazers:  play like a decent team, not like a crappy one.  Take advantage of everything the Rockets offer on defense.  Play like they're the New Rockets, not the old.  Rebound hard.  Then all you have to do is get back to prevent the break and Houston should play a nice enough game but fall short.  Keeping them away from easy points will be a huge benefit, the reverse a disaster.  The worst thing that can happen for the Blazers is seeing Brooks and Scola and Martin start rattling off 30 each because they got on a roll.  In that case Houston could take this game no matter what the environs or the name on the other jersey.

Get some perspective over at The Dream Shake.

Enter tonight's Jersey Contest form right here.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com) 

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